05.01.20

Who Owns Your Computer? The Free Software Fallacy

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF at 8:44 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Article by figosdev

Man and computersSummary: “A right long enjoyed, fought against and left undefended, is worth advocating. It’s a pity that the FSF refuses to defend implicit and de facto rights that Free software can largely attribute its success to. Perhaps they would rather have the IBM money.”

The Free Software Fallacy is an often-used retort against complaints regarding uppity, unethical developers. It goes like this:

“If the license is free, the software is free, therefore the user is free.”

As a proof, this is crap. Even the FSF knows that it’s not this simple, but sometimes it almost is. A free license is certainly the first and most vital step towards software (thus the user) being free, hence the way people tout its importance. But the license isn’t everything.

For more than 20 years, developers from GIAFAM (Google, IBM, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — though mostly Microsoft) have tried to find ways to make freely-licensed software “less free”. IBM (FSF sponsor) and Microsoft (FSFE sponsor) have tried to use patents as a way to thwart existing Free Software licenses.

Microsoft, through a front group, lobbied to thwart the FSF gaining GPL3 traction with the Linux kernel. To this day, both companies continue to attack and stifle free software with bogus patent claims. Will sponsoring CopyleftConf keep advocates quiet about patent abuse? We can look to the corporate takeover of OSI and the Linux Foundation, for possible and likely outcomes.

The Free Software Fallacy may not be the FSF’s official stance on the importance of licenses, but it becomes the de facto stance when only license threats are acknowledged and all others are allowed through unprotested. It’s the silence from these organisations that spells out their de facto stance — their lack of will to stand up against new threats, implying through inaction that only traditional warnings and philosophy apply to anything.

“We can look to the corporate takeover of OSI and the Linux Foundation, for possible and likely outcomes.”Up to a certain point, this conservative stance is reasonable. Everyone should take care not to overload the meaning of “Free Software” with too much cruft, as it would then pose a contradiction with Freedom 0: The right to use the software for any purpose.

I once asked Stallman if a license restriction against DRM would violate Freedom 0. Perhaps he misunderstood my question (or I misunderstood his reply) but he seemed to suggest that Freedom 0 did not include a right to impose DRM. While I would agree this seems like common sense, I’m not sure whether it logically follows or not. It’s got a sort of Zen koan-like quality to it. Can software be so free that it takes away control from the user?

Regardless, I think we need to pay more attention to extra-licensing efforts to limit user freedom.

To avoid misunderstandings, it’s vital to know who the “user” is. When you are using your own computer, you are the user. When you are at work and using a company computer, you ought to have certain rights — but it is their computer. It’s a fact that many companies reserve the right to read employee emails, and that employees should know that this happens in many companies. To a certain degree this issue is relevant whether using free software or not.

Nobody is suggesting, however, that an administrator doesn’t have the right to place restrictions on servers or functionality, for purposes of privacy or security. In this scenario, the administrator is “the user”.

A grey area exists with websites, where the website often presents code to be run locally on the user’s computer. Both the user of the client is the user (with regards to the client software) and the website admin is the user, on the server side.

This grey area leads to a situation where the website admin is given some amount of control over what the client does, and since the client-side user has no control over what happens on the server, the FSF correctly informs people to be sceptical of hype and solutions involving “Cloud” (more like “Clown”) computing.

And still, the FSF has practically no solution to offer regarding uppity developers.

“A straw man often thrown out is that developers are not obligated to write or do anything. This is not an excuse for terrible ethics or terrible mistreatment of the user, however.”I talked about uppity developers in my article about Software Disobedience. The take-it-or-leave-it, our-devs-know-best attitude is deeply patronising, authoritative and negates the entire notion that the user is free and even sovereign.

This attitude, which used to come primarily from monopolies like GIAFAM, emulates the arrogance of developers of non-free software, and treats the user as a digital serf — or customer (or downloader of gratisware).

Just because the user isn’t a developer of a particular piece of software doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about. It isn’t actually the developers’ say whether a user knows what they’re talking about or not — an outside researcher may know of a security flaw, and it is certainly a fallacy to reply “you don’t know that this is a security flaw because you aren’t a developer on our project.”

Ideally this would be a hypothetical problem, not a well-known attitude that Lennart Poettering won a Pwnie for. Of course this isn’t just about one piece of tyrannical software, but an attitude that exists among developers of several projects.

A straw man often thrown out is that developers are not obligated to write or do anything. This is not an excuse for terrible ethics or terrible mistreatment of the user, however.

On the matter of ethics that have nothing to with development, such as being against illegal wars, this is a matter that people ought to stand up for, but a license change (like some of those recently proposed) would be ineffective, vague and contradicting. This is no endorsement of such poorly-written licenses.

People should stand up to such abuse, but separately from license clauses, where their actions will be more effective and not threaten free software with chilling effects, vague legalese and guaranteed unintended consequences.

But it’s probably worth pointing out some examples of developers not respecting the user’s freedom:

1. Privacy settings that are so complicated, they make it impossible to know what is or isn’t private

Example: Facebook (who develop React on Microsoft Github)

Facebook is not free software, but even if it were, their design may deliberately make it impossible for the user to have privacy. Notoriously, Facebook privacy settings were or are hopelessly complex — to the point where a literal PhD in computer science or an expert software developer may not be able to figure out what’s shared or with whom.

Since Facebook has alternatives in the free software world, such as Diaspora, this example is relevant. If the Diaspora devs introduced a similar design, privacy would be a hopeless endeavour for users. While the license may imply freedom, the de facto effect for users would be practically the same if there were none.

“You used to be able turn updates off, but then there were increasing layers of stuff you would have to turn off to prevent Windows from taking the “liberty” of installing or disabling software on your computer anyway.”This is a situation where a free license means you have POTENTIAL freedom — actual freedom is something different, when people are able to either code a solution or find someone who can.

Past a certain amount of complexity, you get closer to the only relevant freedom created by the licenses as the “right to fork”, and beyond there one could argue that you might as well write new software yourself.

“You’re free to write new software yourself” is basically the same “freedom” you have with a non-free license, so past a certain point, this “potential” freedom can become a bit cynical in some contexts. It’s quite relevant as a rule, but we are talking about extreme instances.

It’s these extreme instances that are the subject of this article. Unfortunately, as GIAFAM continues its takeover of free software, we are finding an increasing number of such instances.

This doesn’t apply to security issues, as nice as that would be. Security is already “impossible” and the sort of “privacy settings” discussed here can be simple. “Complete” security and “Complete” privacy involve more than one piece of software, and are perhaps hopelessly complex, but not in a way that we can necessarily blame developers for. (Maybe we can sometimes).

2. Update settings with several layers of “gotcha”

Apart from wanting to run free software, this was one of my main motivations to stop using Windows.

You used to be able turn updates off, but then there were increasing layers of stuff you would have to turn off to prevent Windows from taking the “liberty” of installing or disabling software on your computer anyway.

Mark Shuttleworth once famously implied that Ubuntu is trustworthy beyond question, because people already trust them with updates. This is a fascinating and laughably dishonest response to people wondering if Canonical can CONTINUE to be trusted in light of their actions against user privacy.

Example: Mozilla (who develop Rust on Microsoft Github)

Mozilla’s ethics are completely in the toilet. You may have 100 tabs open, while a plugin restricts what sort of bad things those tabs do — from spying to running possible malware to simply crashing the browser or (sometimes) the operating system.

Mozilla took it upon themselves to forcefully disable plugins on the behalf of the user, quietly. I made valiant efforts to prevent Mozilla from having any access to such “updates” — from changing several about:config settings to outright preventing various domains from resolving via /etc/hosts. Despite at least TEN LAYERS of protection against these updates, Mozilla still killed my plugins. The next time the browser opened, it had no protection against the websites it opened, compared to before the update.

Mozilla is being run into the ground, and its developers are taking part in a crime against users. If you work for Mozilla, I have no respect for you as a person or as a developer. You are doing something hateful and destructive and unethical by assisting their abuse of users. If you feel ashamed, you ought to. You’re helping to destroy the web.

Mozilla’s hype around security and helping the user is no different from when Microsoft does marketing. A lot of their “solutions” make things even worse. The Mozilla that cared about the user is dead, it’s part of the history of their organisation. Please do not support Mozilla.

3. Other kinds of “forced” upgrades

“This sort of “forced” upgrade isn’t a technical issue as much as it’s about an attitude no different than the one that resulted in Microsoft trying to trick people into upgrading to Windows 10 — even if their computer did not support it.”This is one the FSF appears like it might get right now or in the future, so credit where credit is due. This sort of “forced” upgrade isn’t a technical issue as much as it’s about an attitude no different than the one that resulted in Microsoft trying to trick people into upgrading to Windows 10 — even if their computer did not support it. This goes beyond technical coercion and leans on the social.

Example: Python Foundation (who develop CPython on Microsoft Github)

If I have a perfectly good claw hammer, and you want everybody to upgrade to a double hammer and crowbar, guess who’s interested in your pivot? Not me.

I have no interest in your Google-flavoured enterprise version of Python. I’ve tried it. I’ve followed its development for years, and I made a fork of my favourite project that used it. I spent hours and hours on tutorials, I spent an obscene amount of time editing code, making it more complex without any real need just to make use of the new shiny bullshit you guys were pushing — I evaluated that fork of my own software for 6 months — and when I went back to Python 2, Python 2 was BETTER!

Better for me, that is. You might not care about that metric, though I don’t know why you can’t understand that I DO.

No, the Python Foundation has no obligation to maintain old versions of their software. But when there are countless users who don’t care about the direction the language has gone in (this includes some career developers and people who can draw from a firm grasp of computer science to critique the changes) the Python Foundation chose to push aggressive marketing instead of being honest.

If they were honest, they could have easily proposed alternatives like PyPy. But the Python Foundation is acting like a corporate, for-profit monopoly instead — not a non-profit org with a mission to do good. When people imply that you have no choice but to upgrade, they’re basically lying to everybody. I have no respect for the Python Foundation or its dishonest, gaslighting fanboys.

4. Stamping out boycotts

This one pisses me off more than anything else, and if the FSF can’t get this right, then they’re going to become increasingly useless in the fight for free software.

People who are unhappy with the software on their computer basically have three choices:

1. learn to code and fix the software

2. hire someone who can fix the software

3. boycott the software — switch to something else

Example: Freedesktop.org (who develop systemd on Microsoft Github)

“Features are nice, but as a strategy they can lead to lock-in.”I’ve coded for years, but I’ve rarely done much with C or C++. Without developing skills I simply don’t have the patience for, I’m not going to be fixing any giant C or C++-based projects. When possible, I like to find projects that are easy to “take control” of via scripting or edits. Simple software is often arguably “more free”, as more people can learn to fix or change it.

Of course some software really is justified in its complexity. Rather than a ban on complex software, I think we should try to be conservative about complexity, whenever feasible. People are easily tempted by features — that’s part of Microsoft’s known strategy against competition.

Features are nice, but as a strategy they can lead to lock-in. Features are thus a double-edged sword. We should be wary of this being used against us as users, at least. Making software modular means less lock-in (and it makes it easier to remove features we don’t want or need.)

In a perfect world, all you would need to do to fix software created by uppity developers (to add, bugfix or make it more modular) is run a crowdfunding campaign and collect money for certain features to be fixed or developed. This doesn’t always work out in practice — either because the money doesn’t come, or the developers don’t deliver. The second problem isn’t a rule, but it’s certainly relevant.

If you can’t code, and can’t hire someone to code something in particular, then your last option as a sovereign user is to vote with your feet and boycott software that does things you hate. I’ve recommended this for years, both in general and with regards to specific projects, and I’ve watched it become harder and harder to do.

Software Disobedience is an important part of being free. Developers are not free to dictate your personal computing via the development of free software. But some are openly antagonistic, aggressive and condescending (even mocking) of users and user rights.

Some developers act like they own your computer, instead of you. Not only are they jerks, many openly shill for monopolies that create non-free software.

This is a takeover, both politically and in terms of design. The more entrenched projects become on our free operating system, the less free we are.

Boycott should not be hard. It should be as simple as uninstalling what you don’t like. Only a fool or a liar would deny that this is becoming more and more difficult in practice. But in theory, the gaslighting jerks insist, you are free.

I know what software freedom is; it’s something we used to have.

If you are disappointed with the FSF either refusing to listen, or saying they’re listening but refusing to respond in a way that is meaningful or reassuring, I recommend taking a look at FACiL. FACiL is a Free Software organisation based in Quebec, who promote “Free Computing”, including “Free Software” as well as Free culture.

I do not know much about them, so if they are taking money from a dubious GIAFAM sponsor or are promoting something foolish like the newly proposed (non-)Free software plus vague ethical requirement licenses (These only defeat free software licensing, they are not effective towards their stated goals) I hope you will mention or better yet link to evidence in the comments.

“A right long enjoyed, fought against and left undefended, is worth advocating. It’s a pity that the FSF refuses to defend implicit and de facto rights that Free software can largely attribute its success to. Perhaps they would rather have the IBM money.”I have long said that the Free software movement doesn’t get this problem. In fact, Many free software advocates do understand these problems — and that number is growing. Unfortunately, we are both in the minority and remain effectively unheard (openly and often dismissed) by the FSF and most of its advocates.

We have the same options about this that we always had, only the ability to boycott is significantly diminished.

Also, who noticed that every example given of these supposedly-free software projects that are emulating Microsoft’s notorious developer arrogance, are developing their software on Microsoft’s own servers?

The freedom to NOT run the software was inherent, de facto and implicit for most of the time the Free software movement has existed.

Now that too many developers fight against this de facto right, it may prove necessary to make it more explicit.

A right long enjoyed, fought against and left undefended, is worth advocating. It’s a pity that the FSF refuses to defend implicit and de facto rights that Free software can largely attribute its success to. Perhaps they would rather have the IBM money.

Long Live Stallman (he’s still the person who created this movement) and Happy hacking.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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